When “Billions” begins its third season tonight on Showtime, viewers will find Chuck Rhoades, Bobby Axelrod and the rest of the gang digging out from the upheaval inflicted by Rhoades’ machinations at the end of season two.
The characters return to an unsettled environment, but the show set in the world of Wall Street is running like a finely tuned sports car in the view of showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who created “Billions” with Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Billions” has hit the season-three sweet spot that comes after a series proves itself in season one, and then proves in its sophomore year that season one was no fluke.
“The characters have moved now from any kind of archetypal place to a much more real place,” Levien told Variety. “As we get to know the actors better it becomes that much more real.”
The “Billions” ensemble is an unusually brainy bunch, adds Koppelman. “These actors are all super high-IQ people. They can handle anything that (the writers) throw at them. They allow us to fully imagine these characters in a way that as a creator is an extraordinary gift.”
The strengths, flaws, foibles and yearnings of the key characters played by Damian Lewis (Axelrod), Paul Giamatti (Rhoades), Maggie Siff (Wendy Rhoades) and Malin Akerman (Lara Axelrod) are also established enough that there’s not as much track to lay to make the storylines work.
“On the day our actors show up to work they just are these characters,” Koppleman says. “There’s very little separation in our minds between the actors and the characters. We’re being completely true to who these characters are now, so their actions make sense even though the circumstances have changed and the world has shifted. The pressures on Chuck and Axe are different.”
At the close of season two, Chuck Rhoades, the zealous U.S. attorney in New York who polices Wall Street, has orchestrated an elaborate sting that finally snares his long-sought prey — hedge fund kingpin Axelrod — but at great cost to the Rhoades clan, and perhaps to his own ambition to become governor of the Empire State.
The shift in tone and tactics at the Justice Department in the real world is reflected in the new season even if the name “Trump” itself is not uttered once during the season. (Koppelman hasn’t been shy about expressing via social media his outrage at the current administration.)
Veteran actor Clancy Brown (“The Shawshank Redemption”) joins “Billions” this season as bare-knuckles political brawler from Texas, Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat, who becomes the new U.S. Attorney General. He seems destined to keep his cowboy boots planted on Rhoades’ neck.
“We do reflect that there’s been a change in the administration,” Levien says. “It changes the business climate and the prospects for big business and rich billionaires. Everybody’s facing the reckoning of who’s going to be the chosen ones and who’s going to go down.”
As ever, an eclectic mix of music is integral to telling the “Billions” story. The season opener offers a megaphone for distinctive tunes from two emerging singer-songwriters, Garrett T. Capps and Lucy Dacus, with a little old-school New York punk from the Dictators thrown in for good measure.
“The songs are huge keys to understanding what’s going on in the show,” Koppelman said. “There’s been an earthquake of sorts in our world, as is the case in the real world. When there’s a seismic event, alliances shift and loyalties are tested. Our show picks up with our characters in world that is now facing those circumstances.”